Pretty much all the gallerists I talked with would, at some point, lower their voices as if imparting a trade secret and confide that their favorite way to find talented artists was by talking to other artists. That advice had led me to Julie Curtiss.
I’d first met Julie over the summer, at her studio, and as the fall got under way, I spent more and more time meeting artists for studio visits one-on-one in the hope of mining our conversations for tips on understanding and appreciating art. Art lovers pitied me: They said I lacked “visual literacy,” which they swore was downright dangerous in a world so saturated with pictures, and I tried to develop my “Eye” by throwing myself into the art world—working at a gallery in Brooklyn, writing press releases, sitting down with whoever would speak to me.
And yet I felt increasingly frustrated by my attempts to see more when I looked at art. Lots of the connoisseurs I was meeting spent surprisingly little time analyzing the artworks themselves and instead seemed to outsource their opinion of the work to “context”—the web of names around an artist, like where she went to school, who she was friends with, or who’d bought her work.
Artists got this wide-eyed, faraway look when they described how making art both stripped away the magic of art and made you appreciate a piece even more.
I wanted a new perspective. I craved a glimpse at the nitty-gritty process of actually creating an artwork. A chance to see art face-to-face. Artists got this wide-eyed, faraway look when they described how making art both stripped away the magic of art and made you appreciate a piece even more. “Knowing something in theory is a different thing to knowing it in your body. There’s a physical thing,” Julie had told me when we first met. “You just understand from the inside. And you can read art way differently than other people.”
That was exactly what I hoped to do. I wrote Julie with a highly voyeuristic request: Could I watch her paint?
Julie agreed to let me sit in while she worked, and at 10:30 a.m. sharp on a sparkling October day, I met her on the sidewalk outside her studio. Julie hustled us inside, eager to get to work. Her current studio was at an artist’s residency in DUMBO that she’d gotten into after applying unsuccessfully for six years. They’d assigned her a sunlit room with three windows—by studio standards, the equivalent of a house with a pool, guest house, and tennis court.
I complimented her view, which spanned two bridges and a chunk of brick towers in the lower-Manhattan skyline. Julie saw more. “It’s like Mondrian or something,” she said, glancing out the window. As in Piet Mondrian, an artist born in 1872 who painted abstract paintings of colored grids, as if Excel docs had gotten gussied up in red, yellow, and blue formal wear. “There’s something modern about it. Lots of verticals and horizontals. I don’t know how it’ll inform my work, if it does.”
Julie wasn’t even halfway through her croissant before she started worrying about all the canvases she needed stretched. Her process was sl-o-o-o-o-w, she groaned—“like a nightmare a bit, when you want to get somewhere but you can’t walk and so you miss your plane.” She tore off a bite of the croissant and made a strangled gurgling noise of frustration. “It’s like giving birth over and over.”
Julie had a shoulders-back poise, a long mane of black hair she wore knotted into a bun with a paintbrush, and no poker face whatsoever. Her dark eyes twinkled mischievously when she looked out the window of her studio and roiled when she thought about all those canvases. She’d bought twenty preassembled stretchers for around $1,200, but balked at the extra grand it’d cost to hire someone to put canvas on them—“a luxury,” she said—and asked her new intern, an art student, to do it instead. “These I would have stretched in two days with someone else,” she grumbled. “He stretched three canvases, and every one of them, he fucked it up.”
I saw an in.
“I know how to stretch canvas,” I volunteered, hoping that was true. I mean, I’d spent at least two hours sweating over paintings at the gallery. My boss was a thorough, patient teacher. I’d absorbed something, probably.
Julie stopped mid-bite. “Really?” She perked up. “Can you help me?”
We both hoped so. Julie grabbed a wooden stretcher from a stack against the wall and rounded up a gleaming staple gun along with a pair of wide pliers that looked like a sadistic dentist’s prized possession. She kneeled on the floor gripping the naked stretcher—four skinny pieces of plywood joined at the corners to form a rectangle—and confidently, a little too quickly, showed me how she wanted her canvas stretched.
“Usually you start with three staples.” She thwack-thwack-thwacked the staple gun, and I flinch-flinch-flinched at what I remembered too late was a menacing recoil. Julie rotated the stretcher and used the pliers to yank the raw edge of the canvas over the opposite plywood bar. The fabric strained angrily against the three staples. “And I put my thumb flush; it won’t go anywhere”—the canvas looked desperate to go somewhere—“and I staple.” THWACK. “Here.” THWACK. “Nice tension.” THWACK. “Then obviously you go opposite.” Obviously. “We don’t want it to be loose. I don’t like working on a loose canvas.” She tapped the surface of the canvas, which shivered, but didn’t slouch. Tight.
Julie passed me the staple gun and pliers, then abandoned me to roll a stool over to a table stacked with spiral-bound sketchbooks. She flipped through one. She was trying to decide which painting to start next and tilted the notebook toward me to show me how each piece started as a pencil drawing. “The way I start painting is I have a vision of something. A vision or a feel for a painting, something I want to happen.”
Only a fraction of her sketches ever matured into a piece. She flipped past a drawing of a pasta strainer with hair flowing through its holes. “Didn’t work. It looked like shit.” There were aborted drawings that devolved into exasperated scribbles and occasional notes in English or French. I glimpsed a scrawled “chapeau chou”—cabbage hat— as Julie flipped past it. “The hardest part is to figure out which one I want to do, because I make so many sketches of ideas,” she said to the drawings, as if she were apologizing in advance for having to play favorites.
She lingered on a still life of a meal arranged on a table. A wine glass, baguette, and fruit bowl flanked a plump croissant made of hair, which lounged seductively on a plate. Bingo: her next painting, Julie decided. She’d trace different versions of the croissant sketch onto little cut-up squares of tracing paper—erasing, adding, shifting parts “until it feels like something.” Then she’d trace her favorite iteration onto a plastic transparency, project that onto a prepped canvas, and trace it with diluted acrylic paint.
The hairy croissant would make the third or fourth unfinished painting in the studio. Working on one piece at a time wasn’t good for either Julie or the art, she said. “It’s a lot of pressure on one work. And sometimes, the works don’t like that.” Julie talked about her pieces as if they were temperamental children. Several in-progress paintings were in time out. They’d been “very noisy,” Julie said admonishingly. “And to not have noise, I need to not look at them.” She’d made them face the wall.
Occasionally, her paintings cooperated. Most were stubborn. Many were complete assholes. “It’s frustrating when there’s a painting and you never clicked. That painting was just pure suffering from beginning to end. It becomes a fight. And then you’re not even happy with the result! And you fought so, so much.” She glared at one painting out of the corner of her eye. “This painting is resisting. It’s not complying. It’s not collaborating.” The painting appeared unmoved by these allegations. You couldn’t reason with such an uncooperative jerk. Julie would just have to try to listen to its needs. “It’s almost this autonomous entity, and I have to be patient. It’s not just me in control.” She’d attempt to talk it out. “ ‘What do you want? What do you need? Okay. I’ll try that.’ It’s this weird kind of relationship,” Julie said. “It’s like a couple. You try to avoid the fighting.”
A few hours in, the new painting of the hairy croissant, which Julie had only just traced onto a canvas, was already being a total pain. From my squat on the floor, I watched Julie step back and squint at it. “Hmmmmmm…Okay…The composition is problematic.” She pointed to a blank expanse behind the croissant, in between a fruit bowl and a wine glass. “I think there’s too much empty space here, which didn’t seem bad on the sketch, but sometimes when you blow things up, suddenly scale really matters.” She wondered if a vase of tulips could fix the problem. She’d try that, then steel herself for whatever new problem she’d notice at that point.
The emphasis on ideas glossed over the blood, sweat, and tears, as though being an artist meant lounging around the studio daydreaming.
“Everything is like that. It’s going to be touching up a bit of this, touching up a bit of that. It’s all decision making,” Julie said. “Painting is constant decision making.”
It took until after lunch for Julie to work up the courage to confront another painting she’d been feuding with. While they faced off, I put down the staple gun and contemplated the painting: A pair of woman’s legs, elegantly outfitted in black high heels, were stretched out on the grass, her toes pointed up at a dazzling blue sky. The background was cheerful, but the scene didn’t add up—who naps on the grass in heels? My mind immediately went to a homicidal maniac who’d gotten bored halfway through hiding a corpse.
“Something is not working there,” Julie told the painting. She and the painting faced off in silence.
“I think I’ll have to repaint the sky,” she announced, with the grim finality of a surgeon telling a patient she’ll have to operate. “I have to repaint a bunch of things. It’s kind of frustrating.” Every now and then, a deeper French accent bubbled to the surface. I fink…Frustrayting. “Maybe I’m just picknitting,” Julie said later, after scrutinizing an eemaj of a sculpture she thought was a little sheety.
The problem was the sky’s color. “Too vivid or artificial.” She wheeled over a plastic cart heaving with old coffee cans filled with brushes, scissors, rags, paint, and latex gloves.
“The hue is too crazy,” Julie said again. I sensed she was trying to talk herself into the unpleasant chore of repainting the sky. “The sky is going to be a pain in the ass behind those plants,” she whined. She repeated herself again: “I’m going to redo the sky.” She said it the way shaky swimmers dared onto the high dive announce, On three I’m going to jump. She commanded herself to start. “You have to redo it.” She didn’t want to. “I spent three hours on that stupid sky.” She told the painting to look on the bright side: “Lucky for us, today is a blue sky.” Julie blamed the sky’s current “artificial” color on the fact that it’d been overcast the day she painted it. And then there’d also been that irresistible new shade of blue. She fumbled in her cart and whipped out a mangled tube of blue oil paint, her eyes sparkling as if she’d won a prize. “I wanted to try this new paint. A cyan color.”
I sat on the floor behind Julie and kept one eye on her as she painted while trying not to maim myself with the staple gun. Stretching a canvas is like trying to put formal wear on a rabid monkey using only chopsticks. The wood will bite. The staple gun will really bite. The pliers aren’t the dream tool for the job, but I was happy to have them because by the time I was thwacking the opposite side of my second stretcher as Julie had showed me, the canvas was biting, the blisters on my thumbs were swelling, my arms were shaking, and the staple gun was increasingly baring its teeth in my direction. Canvas has about much give as a kitchen chair and loathes stretching, preferring to twist and pucker. It lumps in weird places if you don’t pull enough but tears or warps if you pull too hard.
All the hushed murmuring about historicity and post-postmodernism that goes on in galleries hadn’t quite prepared me for the blistery business of making art. The emphasis on ideas glossed over the blood, sweat, and tears, as though being an artist meant lounging around the studio daydreaming while swirling a snifter of brandy in the air. But making art was practically athletic: Julie was alternately yanking out my errant staples, furiously swishing blue paint, and struggling to muscle fake hair into the shape of a fish.
She had the sculpture’s herring-sized carcass on her work table and couldn’t look at it without going off on how the stray hairs were driving her crazy—she’d refined her wig-sculpting technique by taking a class on Victorian hair art, but the hair still wasn’t lying as smooth as scales. Gravity got in her way, and practically every work was an engineering challenge. For each one of her pieces, Julie had to translate a thought into a thing, then make it stick, lay, stay.
Something clicked in me as I sat there on Julie’s floor. It sounds ridiculous to say I realized I needed to look at art. I’d been looking at art. Only I hadn’t known what to pay attention to in the work itself. Seeing Julie paint offered clues for how to look at a painting like an artist. I needed to slow down, examine its physical form, and consider the artist’s decisions. Because painting is constant decision-making.
From Get the Picture: A Mind-Bending Journey Among the Inspired Artists and Obsessive Art Fiends Who Taught Me How to See by Bianca Bosker, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Bianca Bosker.